A Done Done Culture: Habit Three

This is part three in a twelve part series on developing a “Done Done” culture of high performance and personal accountability. If you’re just getting here, you can go back and read part one first and then read part two.

The Next Most Productive Thing Right Away

I want you to imagine for a second that you’ve just boarded a US Airways flight. Let’s assume, for just a second, that so far everything has gone well and all your previous gripes are a thing of the past. Parking was easy. Security was fast. Your gate was close and you had a boarding pass that let you get on early and get the space above your seat for your luggage. It’s a routine East Coast flight from New York to Charlotte, North Carolina on an Airbus A320 – the kind with 3 seats on each side of the aisle and you have a window seat. You spy one of the flight attendants, a woman whose nametag says she’s Donna, and she smiles before taking care of the young family in front of you.

Can you picture it? You and one hundred and fifty folks are ready to fly down to the US Airways hub for destinations unknown. But not on that day in January. Not on that afternoon flight. Because in just a few minutes, everything would change. On January 15, 2009, flight 1549 hit a flock of geese – just two minutes after takeoff.

Miracle on the Hudson

You probably saw it on television – the plane that landed “miraculously” on the Hudson River and was able to evacuate every single passenger and crew without a single casualty. If you didn’t see it on television, there are tons of YouTube videos you can watch to see simulations of what happened.

If you watch it on YouTube, one thing stands out more than anything else. At least it did for me. And hopefully you.

The whole thing was done in about two minutes. Most of the videos last 3 or 4 minutes but the plane has already landed. It’s just air traffic control talking.

Do the math – 2 minutes to take off and hit geese (and have both engines burn out) and 2 minutes to land. Four minutes from takeoff to landing.

2 Minutes of Decisions

How many decisions do you think the pilot, Chesley Sullenberger, had to make in those 2 minutes? Let’s look at them.

  • What role should he take in an emergency?
  • Where should they land?
  • How should he fly the plane?
  • What checklist should they use?

Role Definition

The role of the pilot in an emergency is to have the first officer fly the plane while he looks over the situation, monitors the pilot, assesses the data, and manages the situation. Is that what “Sully” did? Nope. In seconds he assessed the situation and changed the roles. Because he had more flying time in the plane, he stayed focused on flying and asked the first pilot to focus on the emergency checklists (because he’d just been through training).

Did you catch what he did? He leveraged each person’s experience and talents where they could be most effective, regardless of role and title. And he did it in less than one minute – because it was the most crucial decision to make first.

Target / Objective

At that point, with no engine thrust and a pretty low altitude, his job was to keep the plane flying and stable so they could make assessments and decisions. They were slowing down quickly and had to make a decision on where to land. If you listen to the tape, the air traffic controller was offering airports and runways to land on, but Sully had already figured out that at their speed and elevation, they wouldn’t make it.

Did you catch that call? When he was given two logical and common options, he decided on a third route taking into account his own experience, observations and skills. He’s said, in later interviews that even if he could have tried to start back to La Guardia, he was worried that if he’d made one single mistake, the cost would have been too high. He wasn’t just calculating speed and elevation – though he was doing that – but he was also evaluating his own skills and risk profile. He wasn’t willing to do it.

Process & Procedure

This is all happening in seconds, but already he’s made two critical decisions – on staff roles and on objectives. Now it’s time to get into the tactics. He had to lower the nose to slow the plane down. But that meant dropping faster than normal. So here he was judging between both, and doing it quickly.

As if that wasn’t enough, he and his first officer had to decide which checklist to use. They have a checklist ditching a plane, which would sound like the logical choice, but there’s also one for the loss of power in both engines. And each one is 2 or 3 pages long, filled with lists of things to do. Which of those do you do? Which do you ignore?

Does it sound familiar? Does your organization have policies and procedures? When I start talking about which ones you follow and which you ignore, people start looking at me funny and get uncomfortable. But in time-compressed situations and other high-pressure moments, high performers are constantly making a set of calculations. And they’re not worried that someone else may second-guess them.

Did you catch that on the audio? The air traffic controller is asking questions, giving options and seems a bit lost when Sully just hangs up and focuses on what’s important. Sure, keeping in contact with home base is normally a good move. But when you’ve figured out that you need to take action – action that others may or may not understand – you just need to act (see habit one).

Most Productive Next Step

Let’s change gears for a second and let me share with you something personal about me. Something I’ve never shared with anyone else. Wait..not true. My wife knows. In fact my wife knows because we’re very different when it comes to how we process information. Saying it better, my wife is skilled at worrying about things way in advance.

She’ll ask me, “What time are you flying out to Miami?” and I’ll tell her I don’t know. She’ll ask, “When are you getting home?” and I’ll have to tell her that I have no clue. And when I travel to new cities, I have no clue what hotel I’ll be staying in (which was a problem at Customs in Toronto). You know why I don’t know. Because I only want to know when I need to know it. If not, it just takes up space and cycles that aren’t necessary. My wife doesn’t get that. But you do, because you’ve just spent time reading about Sully and you understand that processing information and making decisions is all about making the next most important decision.

The Third Habit of a “Done Done” Culture

I think you’ve got it by now. High performers focus on the thing that is the most productive next. They don’t worry about the things that they can’t control or are three steps out. They worry about the thing they have to take care of right in front of them.

And you know the crazy thing? Most of us wouldn’t blink at that logic, until we look at most of the decisions we make. We fill our days with decisions that really aren’t the next most productive thing. We get caught by urgent things instead of important things – simply because important things don’t screen out to us. But Sully knew that role definition – while not urgent – was critically important and would impact every other aspect of the next two minutes of his life (and 150 others).

There’s another key thing to think about, when we reflect on the four minutes of that flight. It wasn’t just Sully doing his job. The plane had to do its job. The flight crew had to do their job. Even air traffic control had to do what it could. And all of them had to be guided by the same principle – focus only on what’s most critical right now!

Team Discussion

So as you gather to talk as a team, here are some things to talk about:

  • Do you have a habit of focusing and discussing the wrong things?
  • Every organization has procedures. Do you have some for ignoring them?
  • What would it look like if all of you were all doing the most productive thing?
  • Do you have a way/meeting/place to help decide what’s most critical?